Only a poet’s son would take wood and tea and mangled steel and send a message to the world. It was that poet’s son who stood in front of the White House and Tiananmen Square and raised a finger of offense and then photographed himself and called it art. The poet’s son, he’s the one that took pictures of backpacks of thousands of school children killed in China’s Sichuan Province in 2008, when poorly constructed schools collapsed on them during an earthquake.
The poet’s son, Ai Weiwei, who organized the reading of every one of those children’s names in his traveling art exhibit, was just one year old when his family was sent to Xinjiang province where his father, Ai Qing, was interned at a labor camp during the Chinese Anti-Rightist Movement. The year was 1958. In the next two decades, the Cultural Revolution would nearly finish the work of removing intellectuals from mainstream society.
But the heart of writers and artists and musicians would never be erased entirely from the Chinese culture because poets like Ai Qing did the most counter revolutionary thing they could. They passed along their creativity to their children.
In the exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “According to What?” there is a small carved rosewood box that was his father’s. The small box inspired Ai to construct a large one cubic meter box also made of rosewood, its hollowness representing the creative range allowed to him by his father to think and explore, even in exile. He “created a lot of mental space for us,” Ai wrote in the exhibition notes. “It was another world.”
When my husband and I visited the exhibit recently, we responded as if it were several different shows in one. In some ways, “According to What?” felt more like a cultural or historical exhibit rather than art, as we viewed photographs of Ai Weiwei in New York with American beat poet Allen Ginsberg or the montage displayed at both the beginning and end of the exhibit showing the construction of the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing and the necessary destruction of homes and buildings to make that possible.
Other pieces displayed resembled curious sideshow exhibits, like “Forever,” the circular installation of interlocking bicycles, or the arched sculpture of reassembled wooden stools called “Grapes,” in which each stool shared at least one leg with another, and all twenty or so stools balanced perfectly on the four legs of one.
At other times, the work seemed purely aesthetic. “Moon Chest” is a series of wooden cabinets with circular cutouts lined up precisely so that when we looked at them end on end, we could see all of the stages of the moon in its circuit.
But around each corner, the politics of Ai Weiwei’s works refused to be overlooked. The triptych of photographs in which he smashes a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty Urn, the 150 tons of reclaimed and straightened rebar from the Sichuan province earthquake, and the 2009 MRI scan showing the cerebral hemorrhage Ai suffered during a violent arrest all speak to the revolutionary nature of Ai’s work.
Admittedly, I knew about Ai Weiwei’s politicized work before I went to the exhibit. As we walked around the gallery in and out of the large sculptures, I tried to see them as art. Visually appealing pieces, like the rosewood box, the wooden cabinets, and even the small houses made of tea fit nicely into my paradigm. The photos of Ai giving the bird to the White House, the Han Dynasty pottery with Coca-Cola painted on the side, and his cerebral hemorrhage captured on an MRI scan did not.
Ai Weiwei knew I would struggle this way, apparently. And not just me. In a May 26, 2013, New York Times article by Edward Wong, “An Artist Depicts His Demons,” Ai addressed the question: “Can political art still be good art?” Or in my mind – art at all?
“It’s hard for me to look at things that aren’t pretty and call them art,” I said to my husband as we were driving away from the museum.
“Those questions have been around for too long,” Ai said in the article. He was interviewed just outside his home in China where he is surveilled continuously by the Chinese government. “People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify human emotions from the real world.”
But even in his exile, just as his poet father did, Ai Weiwei creates art that is both aesthetic and angst-ridden, and in sharing it with us all, he gives us the “mental space” to explore our own daily struggles, even when our culture, or ourselves, might otherwise suppress them.